Jennifer Tolliver decided at a very early age that she wanted to go to college – in part because her mother had struggled to attain an education. What Jennifer didn’t know at that age was how difficult it would be for her too.
As a teenager growing up in New York City, Jennifer became a chronic runaway, starting at the age of 13 – to escape an abusive father who she says was both physically and mentally dangerous. In high school, she became so desperate that she ran away and created a new identity, lying about her age and background, landing a job as a waitress in a diner where the owners didn’t ask many questions and renting a private room, so she could avoid being on a lease. Her new life, however, wasn’t compatible with high school – and she dropped out in her senior year.
Jennifer, now 35, has overcome many obstacles in her life – including serious car accidents and a serious blood disorder – but , on May 3, 2020, she will graduate from Valencia College with a 4.0 GPA as a member of Valencia’s Seneff Honors College. Her next step – to study psychology at Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne with plans to become a clinical psychologist – will be easier because Jennifer has been notified that she is one of 50 community college students nationwide to receive a Jack Kent Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship.
The scholarship provides up to $40,000 per year to help a student complete his or her bachelor’s degree, plus college planning support, personal advising and the chance to connect with a network of other high-achieving Cooke scholars. Additionally, Cooke Scholars are eligible to apply for up to $75,000 of funding toward graduate school.
Other recent Valencia graduates who have been selected as Jack Kent Cooke scholars include: Angel Sanchez, who’s currently in law school at the University of Miami; Charlene Singh, who’s a pre-med major at UCF; Faith Culhane, a pediatric nurse who’s studying political science and medical anthropology at UCF; and Mikhail Elliott, who earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Tampa and then a master’s degree in economics and public policy from the University of Manchester (England).
Jennifer, who also served as president of the Osceola Campus Phi Theta Kappa honor society chapter, also was selected as a 2020 Coca-Cola Academic Team Gold Scholar and will receive a $1,500 scholarship. She was also a finalist for the Valencia College Mary S. Collier Distinguished Graduate Award.
For Jennifer, the awards and accolades are proof that her long and often difficult journey to earn a college degree have been worth the struggle.
That struggle started when she was a teenager and chose to live in the shadows and hide her identity. But Jennifer reclaimed her identity when she turned 18– filing for her birth certificate, a driver’s license and her passport. And, when a friend offered to help her get on her feet in California, she left New York and headed west to build a new life.
For a decade, she lived in southern California, where her grit and hustle paid off. Having taught herself about birds, she landed a job at a bird store, where she eventually became a manager. During the 2008 recession, she moved into the banking field and eventually became a supervisor. Her career path stalled, however, when she became ill with a virus that doctors were never able to identify.
Bedridden for a year, it took Jennifer about two or three years to fully recover. But when she did, Jennifer found herself unemployed and hungry for a new start. After researching two-year colleges around the country, she discovered that Valencia College’s high graduation rates and transfer rates and decided to move to Florida.
She moved to Kissimmee in 2013 and began working small jobs while waiting a year to establish Florida residency. She also began volunteering at Kissimmee Middle School. And there, she grew close with a science teacher – a man she would marry in 2016.
“My husband, from day one, believed in me and told me I had the intelligence and strength to finish college – that it would be a matter of showing up and doing my best,” she says.
She studied for her GED (high school equivalency exam) and, in December 2017, as soon as she passed the exam, she marched into Valencia’s Osceola Campus and asked when she could start.
She didn’t have much money, but the Valencia teams helped her figure out her way.
“I’m surprised at how much the college has risen to meet me and help me achieve my goals,” says Jennifer. “I didn’t think, as a non-traditional student, that I would be afforded opportunities for scholarships, awards and even the chance to study abroad. But Valencia always found a way to surprise me.”
Today, she’s preparing to transfer to Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne – and, though she’s gifted in STEM fields, she is following her heart.
“Mental and behavioral health is the reason I wanted to go to college,” says Jennifer. “I have never lost that fascination with psychology.”